YASI 2018’s Code-Switching Externship & Campaign

By Sonia Gurcharran, YASI ’18

S.W.I.T.C.H. Something. We. Intend. To. Change. Here.

IMG_1520For our externship this summer, my group –  Tahirih (Branch), Omar (Martir), Mamadou (Yattassaye) and I – started a code-switching awareness campaign. We were looking to find out if people know what code-switching is and how it affects people, in any way, regardless if they are still in school or not.

Code-switching is the practice of alternating between languages, behaviors, and/or actions that are associated with different cultures and identities to fit into a particular environment. Essentially, people change the way they speak, dress, or interact in order to adapt to the status quo or socially accepted behaviors of a particular environment. Code switching can happen anywhere. This phenomenon can take place in different contexts such as in the workforce or in school, or amongst different racial cultures, languages, or religious institutions. Multiple groups are impacted by the effects of code-switching. African-Americans, foreign students, women, hispanics, people of different sexual orientations, young people and even animals are affected by code switching.

Learning about code-switching and how it can make people feel either depressed, confused, happy, or isolated showed me that I even code-switch, and helped me see how it has affected me in different ways. Code-switching can affect people in both positive and negative ways.  For example, two negative ways:  code-switching leads to paranoia and it could also make someone be confused about his or her own identity.  One positive effect is that can also make people strategic and/or make people become better able to handle different environments.

In order to find out how code-switching  affects communities, during YASI 2018 we created surveys and brochures about code-switching in order to better understand its effect on mental health. Then, we went out to Cypress Hills, Grand Army Plaza, and other places in Brooklyn to ask people to complete the surveys.  We also passed out brochures about code-switching. 

In total we had 60 surveys completed by members of Brooklyn communities.  What we found is that many people didn’t know the specific term code-switching  – they had never heard it before.  However, a lot of people who completed the surveys indicated that they are nonetheless affected by code-switching. 60% of the respondents had no prior knowledge on the definition of code-switching, yet, 68% of the respondents stated that they have engaged in behavior that we characterize as or showed characteristics of code-switching. 61% of survey respondents felt like they had to change their behavior, or actions in different environments which affected their emotions/feeling at some point. 53% of respondents felt that changing their behavior (code-switching) either has made them feel depressed, happy, confused or isolated, proving that code-switching has some bearing on mental health.

The experience of doing outreach on this important issue was great for many reasons.  First, we learned different ways to approach people and also had the experience of doing outreach on something that society needs to learn more about.  It was also great because we could actually make a change in the world; we shared information and made people more aware of the social phenomena of  code-switching and also sought to better understand how it effects people. Most importantly, we learned that can make our voices heard!

Presentation on Code-Switching at our 2018 Youth Summit – Unspoken Words – which took place August 9, 2018 at Brooklyn Law School.


Five reasons why people code switch…


  • People code switch because they want to fit in, both consciously and unconsciously, to act or talk more like those around them.
  • Most people want to say what’s on their mind so they speak in a way that makes them feel most comfortable in a particular situation.
  • People code switch to take advantage of opportunities from other cultures and as a means of survival.
  • Another reason for code switching is to amplify and emphasize a point that is trying to be made.
  • Lastly, code switching is very expressive so people express themselves (for example through language, actions, and the way one dresses) in a way they feel comfortable.



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